HONOLULU – The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) is “a window of hope” and a chance for Westerners to show North Koreans “our world,” a former ambassador and his wife said.
Michelle Mope Andersson, whose husband Karl-Olof Andersson served as Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea for two years, gave a talk at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center for Korean Studies. Andersson’s talk featured dozens of photos from her stay in the North, illustrating problems with shortages in food and energy, as well as arduous labor conditions, particularly for those outside the capital Pyongyang.
Her photos also included some from graduation day at PUST, and she praised the faculty of the school, who she said are providing a “window of hope for the future.”
Andersson was asked to elaborate on her thoughts regarding PUST in a Q&A session after her talk, especially in light of Suki Kim’s controversial memoir Without You, There is No Us. Kim’s book, written about her time spent teaching at PUST, has been criticized, including by staff and the administration of the university, for inaccuracies and for jeopardizing the mission.
The Anderssons voiced agreement with these criticisms, with Michelle Mope Andersson saying her “heart skipped” when she heard of its publication, and that actions such as Kim’s jeopardize institutions that build connections between the North and the outside world.
“You’ve got 500 North Koreans taught in English by American professors,” Karl-Olof Andersson said of PUST, adding that many of them will go onto professions such as medicine, where knowledge they pick up from Western instructors can be put to use.
“We don’t want to close that window,” he said. “To my mind we need to bring as many North Koreans to our world as possible.”
Kim’s book is subtitled My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, and Michelle Mope Andersson disputed the characterization of the PUST’s student body as “elites” – meaning the relatives of Kim Jong Un and his inner circle – though she did acknowledge that they are “upper-level” students from families who have proven their loyalty to the regime.
Suki Kim has told NK News that she has no opinion as to whether PUST is a worthwhile project, that she did not lie to PUST staff before or during her stay with them and that the importance of an authentic depiction of the inside of North Korea outweighs the harm done to PUST.
Karl-Olof Andersson served as ambassador to North Korea from 2012 until earlier this year. During that time he also had serve as representation for the United States and Canada – nations with no diplomatic relations with the North – and Australia, which has nominal relations with Pyongyang but no embassy. This meant liaising with those governments as to the status of detainees from those countries, such as a few Americans who have been arrested in the North in recent years, as well as Australian John Short earlier in 2014.
Michelle Mope Andersson, who is Catholic, served as a wellness and stress counselor for the United Nations Development Program in Pyongyang. She holds a degree in pastoral care and counseling, which she provided during her stay to staff separated from their families, who working under strenuous conditions and seeing difficult sights while in the North.
She spoke of regularly attending Pyongyang’s “approved” Catholic church, which typically cannot provide communion because it does not have a priest – except for once a year when a priest from Seoul is allowed to visit – but said that she looked forward to Sundays because they were a chance to “smell real life in North Korea.”
Pyongyang’s three approved churches have been criticized as inauthentic “show churches” for a foreign audience, but she said that only a few non-Koreans attend.
“If this is a charade for the foreign community it really is a big investment,” she said.
Andersson’s presentation was also filled with stories of the generosity and industriousness of the North Koreans she met, and she said that she regularly prays for unification.
“These people deserve a better life,” she said.
Main picture: Rob York
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